Add Breasts and Stir: On Gender Equality in Videogames

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I haven’t played Grand Theft Auto V, but I think it’s probably sexist.

There are some readily apparent flaws in this line of logic, but that didn’t stop gamers from using it. Gamestop reviewer Carolyn Petit docked the game’s score a single point for its sexism, writing that the women were relegated to “strippers, prostitutes…and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at.” Because Petit failed to christen GTAV the new Citizen Kane of Gaming, there was a lamentably predictable backlash. But the review was published before the game was released, meaning these commenters were willing to bet the game, which they hadn’t yet played, wasn’t sexist.

Targeting and punishing women who do their jobs as reviewers or critics has had the two-sided effect of unveiling the pervasive sexism in the industry and making gender the dominant conversation of this generation. In Katherine Cross’s excellent analysis of the backlash, she highlights a comment on Petit’s original article that read: “no one gave a shit about how women were portrayed in video games 2 years ago but now because more women play it’s suddenly a problem.” To be sure, its an old issue with renewed interest—modern discourse is such that developers, commentators, and critics alike cannot simply ignore the issue as they could before.

The most often-heard solution is a call to “include more women” in videogames. Most recently, Call of Duty: Ghosts will be the first in the mega-blockbuster franchise to include playable women, while GTAV’s exclusion of a female protaganist prompted a Change.org petition. But given the notorious hostility of online FPS communities and the demented and callous “jokes” of the GTA series, how will including women in either game advance the status of women in gaming culture?

“Add more women” is an easy, moderate position to take in the conversation on gender in games. It’s our “get out and vote”: a political stance with no action, no consequence, no real politics. It ignores the totality of sexism in the industry: from the online harassment of female gamers, harassment in gaming spaces, the wage gap that devalues them as producers, and the language that dismisses them as consumers. These can’t be solved by simply “adding women.” Adding more women without rethinking their position in the culture or valuing how they may change it does no more than reduce them to quota-fulfilling body parts. Add breasts and stir.

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Wittingly or no, what these proponents are actually calling for is tokenism: a measure to add women as a means of silencing the conversation without changing gender relations. So long as the status quo keeps turning, what does it matter if more women are more added to it? Simply including women ignores how frequently women are debased in the culture, with the (assumed male) player rewarded for groping them (in the case of GTAV’s strip club minigame), ogling them (in Killer is Dead’s ‘Gigolo Mode’), or, as explored by Anita Sarkeesian in the Damsels in Distress series, even killing them— with some games going so far as include the male protagonist thanked by the women for doing so. What will token female leads do to counter this debasement?

Tokenizing women has a even more insidious purpose than simply silencing critics: it supports a myth of gender equity. In his piece on the gender politics of GTAV, Paul Tassi wrote: “Yes, overwhelmingly [Grand Theft Auto V] has a terribly negative portrayal of women. But I think we’re missing the other side of the coin here. The game has a terribly negative portrayal of men too. Really, the characters of Grand Theft Auto are all pretty awful people, no matter their gender.”

But gender always matters. The humanity and competency of men isn’t up for discussion—we’re sure men are people. But we’re not sure women are anything other than women. So while a game may treat all its characters with “equal” disdain, the derision of women works to undermine them as a whole. Recall Petit’s criticism of GTAV’s sexism. If gaming culture admonishes women for being “sluts” and despises feminism in the real world, uncritically echoing that in games is tacit support for this treatment. In fact, real-world consequences are especially dire for women. Time magazine recently covered the findings of a Stanford study on the impact of the representation of women in videogames on female gamers in the own lives:

The Stanford researchers asked 86 women ages 18 to 40 to play using either a sexualized (sexily dressed) avatar or a nonsexualized (conservatively dressed) avatar. Then, researchers designed some of those avatars to look like the player embodying them. Those women who played using sexualized avatars who looked like them were more accepting of the rape myth, according to the study. After playing the game, women responded to many questions with answers along a five-point scale (from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”), including, “In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.” Those who played sexy avatars who looked like themselves were more likely to answer “agree” or “strongly agree” than those women who had nonsexy avatars who did not look like them. Participants were also asked to free write their thoughts after the study. Those with sexualized avatars were more likely to self-objectify in their essays after play.

Unfortunately, sexiness is almost compulsory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with women in games with large breasts or revealing clothing, but this model of femininity is so static that it ignores the physical diversity of women and omits any intellectual element. Routinely collapsing the humanity of female characters into sex objects is frighteningly similar to the “sexy occupations” Halloween epidemic: Women in games can be a sexy soldier, sexy space girl, nearly identical sexy agent, a different nearly identical sexy agent, etc. It’s as difficult to find a woman in games who isn’t sexy as it is to find a man in games who isn’t a murderer.

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But some games winningly subvert this. Games with the option to choose a gender add a new dimension to this discussion and have the potential to involve women in a meaningful way. The best example of this may be Mass Effect’s characterization of Commander Jane Shepard. While the marketing department would have you believe Mr. Shepard is the default, “FemShep” is more than a pallet swap. Rather than trivializing and tokenizing her by having identical dialogue for either Shepard, Mass Effect featured contextualized, gender-specific dialogue, particularly in scenes involving a romantic partner. This compounds with the (admittedly binary) Paragon/Renegade morality mechanic. Rather than simply having FemShep parrot the male’s dialogue, she has her own spectrum of experiences in addition to the largely overlapping characterization of Shepard as a galactic hero. A FemShep playthrough varies not only from male Shepard, but multiple FemShep playthroughs may vary greatly from each other. The varying morality, narrative and romantic options underscore that there is diversity within a woman’s perspective – not simply by adding a woman for the sake of appeasing critics.

The perspective of women has become a highly contentious aspect of the dominant gaming discourse. Actress and E3 speaker Aisha Tyler, who herself has had to fight for her legitimacy as a black woman and gamer spoke on women’s perspective in an Edge Online interview. When asked “Does it bother you that games are still predominantly made by and for men?” Tyler replied:

Yes and no. I feel like my way into gaming was ‘blokey’; I was raised by a single dad, so I always loved action movies and every kid who loves action movies imagines that they’re John McClane. There are women who like shooters, and I don’t feel female gaming is necessarily more ‘huggy’ than male gaming, but I also feel if The Walking Dead is the way games are going, then more women will want to game. If there’s a ‘feminisation’ of games—and I don’t think that’s the right word, honestly—it’ll benefit all gaming because The Walking Dead was so emotionally wrenching that everything about it was satisfying.

Tyler’s sophisticated, nuanced answer avoids the essentialism of the moderate stance. It’s not simply about adding more vaginas than penises, it’s about expanding the play experience. It’s about recognizing the chokehold that conservative masculinity has on all aspects of the culture—from design to marketing to writing to criticism—and making a broader spectrum of emotions a legible part of the gaming experience. Tyler believes women will respond to that.

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Questioning the masculinized framing of emotionality in gaming was central to Petit’s’ discussion of the gender politics of The Last of Us. Petit writes that while The Last of Us is an emotionally centered game, its exploration of loss, survival and the relationship between the two protagonists is still bound by a traditional, male-focused framework:

There’s nothing wrong with stories about men, and how they are changed by the things they go through. But these stories about men—usually white men, usually violent men, often angry or emotionally distant men, whose lives are impacted by the violent deaths of women—are so prevalent in games today, and you can’t tell such a story while simultaneously subverting the framework these stories follow, at least not if you adhere to that framework as closely as The Last of Us does.

An emphasis on emotionality is incomplete if it is still bound by the current paradigm of masculinity that binds men to violence and stoicism and women to secondary, disposable roles meant to catalyze the emotional development of male protagonists. What games need is not just sexual diversity, but a diversity of ideas, emotions and frameworks – achievable only through inclusivity and interrogation of the old paradigm.

Combating tokenism requires acknowledging the totality of sexism in the industry. It requires humanizing women by exploring the diversity within and between them. It requires stories that explore an emotional spectrum that isn’t male centered. It requires openness to criticism and probably, a few more backlashes. But advancing our concepts of gender, diversity and emotionality will progress the medium beyond tokenist appeasement and towards actual involvement, community and respect.

  • asbofive

    Ugh…….

  • cubs223425

    It’s funny how we’re supposed to aim for “equality” by forcing a gender onto people. Oh, you think that women aren’t represented enough? It must be sexist because men are depicted doing things traditionally done primarily by men.

    I often enjoy these “arguments” that the solution to inequality is inequality. You say “add more women,” but that’s shoehorning women into games where they might not be the preferred character, because folks such as yourself cry sexism if the character is a male. At the same time, we cry “save the WOMEN and children,” as men are supposed to be willing to lay down their lives for the other gender.

    Sorry, but equality here is choice. To say “you’re not adding enough women” isn’t any less than sexism, because it’s basically saying that choosing a man is wrong. If developers want female characters, they’ll provide them. It’s a pretty pathetic time period when FICTIONAL women’s rights are being argued as meaningful. Crap like this is why it sucks to have video games become so popular–it drags the idiots arguing for friendship and stupidity into the realm.

    You’re never going to pull off this argument without putting it in people’s heads that every female lead is to appeal the liberal crybabies. I guess Tomb Raider was just super-offensive because the lead character had the physique that she had. I’ll have a hard time not thinking “I wonder which liberal HR department rep pulled this off” whenever I see female characters in game, because I’m about 90% sure that female characters are in Call of Duty because some stupid women’s right activist said it was offensive otherwise.

    Gaming got along fine without silly complaining like this, and it’d get along better if it went away. Let the developers make their decisions themselves.

    • https://www.youtube.com/ButtonBros TheRedButterfly

      :) Nicely worded.

    • http://blog.whistling-fish.org/ Joel

      If women are in major studio games it’s most likely because people allocating resources were convinced it will move more units (i.e. make more money.)

      Pretty sure no one in HR has any part of that decision.

    • Raichu

      Way to show your colors, man. You’re basically outright saying you don’t think women are important.

      Also, your first couple of paragraphs make me wonder if you actually read the article.

      • cubs223425

        No, I got to a point where I couldn’t take finishing the article, it was just to biased. I never once said women don’t matter. I said that for all of this “gender equality” stuff, we’re actually leaning more and more AWAY from it. People want to shoehorn in women into things, calling it “equaling the field.” However, whenever you set something up requiring women employees, you’re basically saying men aren’t good enough to fill jobs. If, for example, you say a business must have 20% of its employees be female, you are being sexist against men 20% of the time, with the other 80% being equal.

        I’m all for male-female gender equality. However, my definition of “equality” is a level playing field. Sadly, given the past, it’s going to take time for that playing field to fully level. Calling it “equality” when you force the field to level by excluding men is NOT equality, it’s exclusion, and that’s my point.

        • Raichu

          Well, if you didn’t read the article, I’m not entirely sure why you expect me to take your conclusions seriously. You made some assertions in your first comment that basically indicated you thought the article said things that were opposite of what it really said.

          I don’t like affirmative action or job quotas either, though it seems my reasoning is different from yours (including women is never in any way saying men “aren’t good enough”; it’s saying men aren’t the default option).

          As for your last paragraph, are you still going on about jobs (not even slightly what the article is about) or are you talking about video games now?

      • John Publique

        I find it is always the dullards that try to boil down a complex argument into something completely different. In no way did he say he didnt think women are important. What a crock.

        • Raichu

          Dang, this is an old conversation. Do you want to pick it up again?

          Acting offended that women are even included in games and being upset that the gaming community is changing from its completely male-centric culture to something more inclusive is in fact being very dismissive of women. Nobody is trying to say that men aren’t important or shouldn’t be included, only that women are also important and also deserve to be included in things (like stories or the gaming community), and it always blows my mind how angrily threatened some men act when presented with this.

    • Anna

      quiet male nobody cares about your overemotional bullshit

  • https://www.youtube.com/ButtonBros TheRedButterfly

    As a male gamer who, given the option, always plays female, I’m all for more female protagonists and all that goes with them! But Petit… ugh… She just rubs me the wrong way… I’ll stay away from her “controversial” aspects, but having personally lived within close proximity to said “aspects,” I’m particularly sensitive to and aware of how/why she feels that everything is either ‘about the man’ or ‘at the expense of the woman’ and I’ve got to say that, at least in my opinion, she’s just straight up wrong. Both in my personal experience and in the experience of many of my female gaming buddies, Petit is hypersensitive to aspects that go otherwise unnoticed unless you’re spending the entire play-session focusing on whether or not A: there are enough female characters, or B: the existing female characters are fleshed out as brilliantly as the best male protagonist to have ever existed.

    She makes the “common” (among people with her ‘controversial aspects’) mistake of assuming that the world is, by default, looking at her in a way she doesn’t want it to, or that the character, because it is female, is automatically subjected to the sexualization that we’ve come to assume they would be thanks to the popular titles that came before it (Grand Theft Auto would be a good example).

    In making these mistakes, she’s automatically discrediting all the steps the industry has made to not only blur the line between what makes a respectable and well-versed female protagonist (Commander Jane Shepard) and an over-sexualized excuse to put a pair of tits on the box art (Juliet Starling), but also to entirely remove the subject of gender from being part of a necessary discussion.

    When playing Mirror’s Edge, you aren’t focusing on Faith’s chromosomes, you’re focusing on the parkour adventure and beautiful level design. When playing Metroid Prime, you aren’t focusing on Samus Auran’s long blonde hair that’s hidden so wonderfully under the iconic helmet, assuming you’re even aware of the fact that you’re assuming the role of a female protagonist, you’re focusing on the immersive environments and strangely mature (for a Nintendo game) gameplay.

    Of course, as far as female protagonists go, Shepard (voiced by the amazingly talented Jennifer Hale (see attached)) is the panicle of where the industry is today. Has the entire industry adopted it? No. (I’m looking at you DICE/Battlefield 4 > ->) Is every narrative suited for a female protagonist? No. (One of the main things keeping me from getting GTA:V and DR3 is the lack of a protagonist I can get excited about.) But we are heading in the right direction.

    It’s a shame that people like Petit are the face of the industry-wide shift towards a female “friendly” (even though it already is according to all my female gaming buddies (ignoring the immature fucks on COD… those will always be a thing)), as she’s giving the entire shift a negative light. Whining “it’s not fast enough” or “it still isn’t perfect” only adds fuel to the fire regarding the somewhat outlook on people who demand (or at least prefer/desire) female protagonists vs male protagonists.

  • Janus

    I think an important issue that needs to addressed is the treatment of women on the development side of games. Developers, artists, journalists who the author has already stated don’t get the same treatment as men (wage differences, etc). Every June, sites like N4G, numerous posts about how poorly women are treated at E3 – as nothing but eye candy or worse, made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin by leering eyes of people with the social etiquette of a flea. Or the after-parties where some male PR rep makes some off-colour comment about a woman’s breasts or ass. The fact that this thing is somewhat (at least as the news outlets would have you believe) common occurrence is troubling but what’s worse is when it’s as “well it’s a boy’s club. That’s fucking unacceptable.

    I don’t think that these are problems that we’re going to be able to just magically fix by changing a few lines of code. I don’t think that they’re problems that are going to be fixed by shoehorning women in where they don’t belong. I don’t even think they’re going to be fixed by writing entire stories around strong female leads. Changing the minds and attitudes of the people who make and play games is going to take a long, long time.

  • remmy

    Awesome article, but unfortunately undermined by the “MALE GAMERS ONLY” Wartune ad running next to it. *sigh*

    • Raichu

      Dang. I have a male friend who is trying to get me into Wartune…I wonder if the game itself reflects that attitude to a large extent. >___>